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Anti-wobbly demonstrators in front of old police station. "When my brother finally got back some months later, he said that what the police and vigilantes did in San Diego was the worst head busting he’d ever seen."
On March 10, 1912, 5000 people gathered in front of the San Diego city jail at Broadway and Front Street to demand an end to the ban on public speaking and better treatment for the free speech prisoners already locked away. The police called in the fire department to disperse the crowd with 150-pound pressure hoses. As Laura Payne Emerson of IWW (International Workers of the World, also known as the wobblies) Local 13 rose to the speakers’ platform the hoses were turned against her.
2nd avenue looking south from E street. The police called in the fire department to disperse the crowd with 150-pound pressure hoses.
Historical Collection Title Insurance and Trust Company
A reporter from the Oakland World described the scene: “For a full hour hundreds packed themselves in a solid mass around Mrs. Emerson as she stood to speak.. .they held their ground until swept from their feet by the irresistible flood. . . a grey-haired woman was knocked down by the direct force of the stream. ... A mother was deluged with a babe in arms. . .an awe-struck patriot wrapped himself in the flag to test its efficiency against police outrage, but he was knocked down and jailed and Fined $30.00 for insulting the flag.”
Captured wobblies under guard at Old Town school. Eighty members of the IWW were arrested in the Old Town area over the next several hours and rifles were passed out among the vigilantes.
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My cousins were very interested in the wobbly activity here in San Diego and after the war when I went into the Fire Department they took pleasure in telling me what happened here. “Do you know what we saw the police and fire department doing?” they'd say, and this is what they told me: “Some IWW workers was having a peaceful meeting and there was a guy making a speech and here comes the police and fire department, and they start squirting water on the IWWs. They said there's a woman who'd start to cross the street with a baby in a carriage, and they squirted her and her carriage turned over and she grabbed the baby and ran. I heard exactly what happened from firemen who was there and they said that it was a man dressed like a woman with a simulated child, a doll or a ham wrapped up or whatever it was. He grabbed up the baby and ran directly into the stream of water which is of course what he was there to do. The papers should pick up on it and the movement would get sympathy.
— Bert Shanklund, 87, retired San Diego fireman
Beatings continued into the night. One woman was knocked unconscious by a police club. Many of those arrested were thrown into the city jail, originally built to house 65 prisoners but now filled with over 200 free speech fighters, including Michael Hoey, a 65-year-old wobbly who, after being beaten by police, was left to lie on the cement floor of a crowded cell, denied medical treatment for over 40 days until he died. Others arrested were handed over by the police to members of the “Citizens Committee,” vigilantes who would drive them to the county line and there beat them up. They were then told to pack it up for Los Angeles under threat of death should they return. But many did return.
“My older brother Clement rode the rails clear down from Montana to be parta’ that fight,” recalls “Codger” Bill Lewis, 77, a charter member of Bronco Busters and Rodeo Riders Local No. 1 of the International Workers of the World and now a self-described “independent socialist” living alone in San Francisco. “Though I was just 12 at the time, I don’t mind telling you that I was jealous as a skunk in a perfume factory to see him goin’ off to the coast like that, and me havin’ to stay behind in Butte with the resta’ the family. When he finally got back some months later, he said that what the police and vigilantes did in San Diego was the worst head busting he’d ever seen. They kilt two wobs and ya’ don’t know how many more bodies they mighta’ dumped in the desert for the coyotes since a lot of us were what ya’ might call foot-loose, without family ties and connections if we was to disappear.”
I knew one man in the fire department named Bill, who was a card-carrying IWW. A nice feller too. Him. and I used to argue about the movement all the time. I was against it. They were just a bunch of bums, I felt. But he said he was into the fraternity part of it. It said in their constitution, that if ever a member were hungry he could go to a meeting and meet another wobbly and be loaned money or at least given a meal. That was his argument for joining. He didn't stay long with the fire department.
The International Workers of the World was the most feared and hated union in the history of American labor. Founded in 1905 in Chicago, the IWW was made up of miners, lumberjacks, immigrant laborers, and others who shared a common belief that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Unlike Samuel Gompers’ conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), which organized skilled, white native-born workers around the slogan “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” the wobblies believed that all workers, regardless of race, sex, age, or national origin, should organize into “one big union” in order to overthrow the “thieving capitalists” and establish a workers’ republic.
As early as 1910, an IWW local had been established in San Diego and led Mexican workers at the Consolidated Gas and Electric Company in a successful strike for higher pay and shorter hours. A number of other wobblies crossed the border to join in the Mexican Revolution, and several of them established a Tijuana chapter of the IWW.
One of the main organizing tactics of the IWW in the west was to set up soap boxes in front of the offices of “sharks” (employment agents) and loudly urge migrant workers, lumberjacks, and fruit pickers to join the union. In 1909 Spokane, Washington passed an ordinance against public speaking of this sort. Missoula, Montana; Fresno, California; and Vancouver, British Columbia soon followed suit. The IWW responded with the “free speech fight.” Calling for volunteers from among the ranks of unemployed wobblies, the union soon filled the jails of these towns with “free speakers,” each demanding their own separate jury trial. The tactic was simple but effective —speak, be arrested, clog up the administrative machinery of the city through a campaign of passive resistance. After harsh attempts at physical repression, municipalities reluctantly gave in to the invading hordes. But San Diego, a small tourist town of 50,000, would prove itself a tougher opponent.
The business and professional men was getting fed up with the activities of the IWWs, they were deliberately causing trouble, disrupting traffic and generally making nuisance of themselves. . . . The wobblies were living like tramps in their jungles; they made camps along the railroad tracks, cooked up their stews and so on. . . .
For over 20 years the downtown area of San Diego around E Street between Fifth and Sixth had been known as “Soapbox Row,” a place where single-taxers, socialists, wobblies, and evangelists could be found speaking their minds on the issues of the day. Then in November, 1911 Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times and leader of the California Merchants and Manufacturers Association (M&M), came to San Diego to address a banquet of wealthy local businessmen, including sugar millionaire John D. Spreckels. He urged the suppression of street speaking through the adoption of restrictive ordinances such as those recently applied in Los Angeles.
On December 8, the San Diego grand jury recommended that “Soapbox Row” be cleared. On January 8, 1912, the city council passed an ordinance creating a “restricted area” of 50 square blocks in the center of town in which street-corner meetings could not be held. On the day the ordinance was to go into effect, the IWW and the Socialist Party held a rally of 2,500 people on “Soapbox Row.” However, due to a technicality, enforcement of the ordinance was postponed for one month. During this month the California Free Speech League was formed. It included members of the IWW, AFL, the Socialist Party, and several church groups. On February 8, 39 men and three women members of the Free Speech League were arrested for trying to speak within the restricted area. Wobblies began arriving by foot and rail, and the local IWW leadership assured the San Diego authorities that the free speech fight would be fought to the finish, “if it takes 20,000 members and 20 years to do so.”
By the end of the month the city jails were filled with free speech fighters and a new “move-on” ordinance had been passed by the city allowing the police to break up gatherings of groups and individuals anywhere in the city. The Spreckels-owned San Diego Tribune of March 4, said of the wobblies: “Hanging is none too good for them. They are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are waste material that should be drained off in the sewer.” In an editorial response to complaints of overcrowding in the jails, it suggested shooting the prisoners. “This method of dealing with the evil that has fastened itself on San Diego would end the trouble in half an hour.” Other San Diego papers echoed the Tribune in calling for the formation of a vigilante committee. Beatings and deportations were called for in the San Diego Union, which went on to declare that “if this be lawlessness, make the most of it.”
By the beginning of March, chief of police Wilson was at wit’s end over what to do with all the prisoners in his jails. “Listen to them singing, hollering and yelling,” he told the first of several investigating committees to arrive in the city. “They’re telling the jailors to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals.” So it was with great relief that Chief Wilson agreed to start turning over prisoners to a newly formed “citizens committee” that came around to the jails three times a week to pick them up.
“My brother Clem was a pretty smart fella,” recalls “Codger” Lewis. “Most wobs had to go to Diego twice in order to get beat up twice. But the first time he went there he got hisself beat up once on the way to jail by the police and then again by the vigilantes they turned him over to. They drove him and three other fellas out to the desert about 20 miles in an automobile and dumped them there after workin’ ’em over with blackjacks and pistols. Took a shot at ’em after they was done. Told ’em never to come back to San Diego if they valued their skin any. Well he and his pals stayed away all right - all that night and didn't come back to town till the very next day.”
The courage and nonviolent discipline of the wobblies only seemed to spur the police and vigilantes to greater acts of violence. On the night of April 4th several hundred vigilantes, deputized by the county sheriff and armed with rifles, stopped a freight train at the county line at San Onofre. One hundred forty wobblies were taken off a flat car and herded into a corral where they were beaten and made to march in circles for 18 hours. Those who fell, or were recognized as having been in the city before, were selected for special attention. At the end of their ordeal the prisoners were made to kiss the flag, sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” and run a gantlet of 106 armed vigilantes. This mass round-up and flag-kissing ceremony would be repeated a month later in Sorrento Valley. IWW bard Joe Hill and IWW “Hobo Orator” Frank Little were among the dozens of reluctant participants on that occasion.
They’d perform this ceremony. They’d open the gate to this corral and one man would be let out. If he’d kneel down and kiss the American flag which one of the vigilantes was holding, he’d be let go. If he acted like he wasn’t going to do it, they’d hit him. One fireman I know, he was a pretty rough fighter, and he’d take a poke at ’em right on the jaw. He did that so often that his fist got sore. Before they took the wobblies out there some of the vigilantes provided themselves with pieces of hose 18 inches long. They’d plug up one end and fill it with sand and with tacks at the other end. It was a formidable weapon, although it left no marks, or so I was told. Anyway, after the defiant ones had been worked over with the firehose they were loaded into a boxcar, and an engine provided by the railroad company pulled them somewhere up around the Orange County line where they were released.
The weekly San Diego Herald was the only major newspaper in San Diego to take a pro-free speech position. On the night of April 5, Abram R. Sauer, editor of the Herald, was kidnapped in front of his home by six vigilantes. He was driven out of town to the desert where a rope was placed around his neck and he was warned that he would be lynched if he ever returned to San Diego. But he did return and in the next issue of the paper described the make-up of the vigilante group. “The personnel of the vigilantes represents not only merchants and bankers, but church members and bartenders. The chamber of commerce and the real estate board are well represented. The press, the public utilities corporations, as well as members of the grand jury, are known to belong.” In short order 30 vigilantes appeared at the Herald office and wrecked the paper’s galleys. The paper’s printer was warned that his plant would be destroyed if he continued to print the Herald. The paper continued to come out, only now it had to be printed outside the county and smuggled in at night
On April 15, inundated by petitions and telegrams from labor organizations throughout the state and nation, California Governor Hiram Johnson sent Colonel Harris Weinstock to “investigate charges of cruelty in all matters pertaining to the recent disturbances in San Diego.” After several days of hearings, Weinstock was convinced that a conspiracy existed, not within the IWW, but among the police, vigilantes, leading papers, and “much of the good citizenship of San Diego” to deprive certain people of their basic rights through brutality and intimidation.
He described the situation in San Diego as akin to that in Tsarist Russia, and called for state charges to be brought against the vigilantes. J.M. Porter, realty operator and head of the vigilantes, replied, “We don’t care about Weinstock or Governor Johnson. Only troops can stop us.” No state charges were ever brought against the vigilantes although 11 members of the IWW would eventually serve time on conspiracy charges.
Throughout the summer of 1912 the Justice Department investigated allegations of IWW “subversion” in San Diego and IWW plans to invade and seize Baja, California. When the local federal attorney tried to close these investigations down at the end of the summer, California Republicans went over his head and sent a delegation, including Otis and Spreckels, directly to President William Howard Taft. They explained how a strong federal commitment to San Diego might weaken Hiram Johnson and his Progressive Republicans, who supported Theodore Roosevelt in the upcoming election, and swing the California Republican Party in line behind Taft. Shortly thereafter. President Taft wrote to the attorney general urging strong action. “There is not any doubt,” he wrote, “that the corner of the country is a basis for most of the Anarchists and Industrial World Workers [sic] and for all the lawless flotsam and jetsam that proximates the Mexican border.” However, the attorney general, a secret supporter of Roosevelt, ignored the president’s recommendation and allowed the San Diego investigations to be terminated. Taft went on to defeat in the 1912 elections.
ON MAY 4, Joseph Mickolash, a Polish member of an IWW local in Los Angeles, was released from city jail after serving 30 days for public speaking. Followed by detectives, he made his way to IWW headquarters in Old Town, where they set upon him and shot him in the leg. Inside the building’s door was an axe which he grabbed in order to defend himself. Before he could lift the axe to the height of his shoulder he was shot four more times. He died 19 hours later. Eighty members of the IWW were arrested in the Old Town area over the next several hours and rifles were passed out among the vigilantes in case the wobblies might try to retaliate. Several days later, unable to hold a funeral in San Diego, which was now under a virtual state of martial law, the IWW shipped the body north to Los Angeles. There a funeral procession was held which drew over 10,000 people.
Emma Goldman, who was very important in the International Workers, was picked up by some women, I was told, by fellows who was right there, and whether or not they was vigilantes, they were certainly in sympathy with them. Whatever happened to her was done by women. She got some pretty rough treatment. Emma Goldman had a partner, I forget his name, but they got him out of town also.
On May 14, the famed anarchist orator, Emma Goldman, arrived in San Diego with her manager-lover, Ben Reitman. She was scheduled to give a lecture on Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. At the railroad station they were met by a band of well-dressed women who yelled insults at her. Escaping downtown to the U.S. Grant Hotel, the couple just had time to unpack and begin outlining her scheduled talk for the new Conservatory of Music in Balboa Park, when the hotel manager arrived and asked if she could come downstairs to meet with some city officials. From the lobby she and Reitman were led into a room with eight men, including Police Chief Wilson. Wilson asked her to come alone into the next room to meet with the mayor. There the mayor told her that the vigilantes were gathering outside the hotel and that for her own safety she would have to leave. She asked him why he didn’t order the police to disperse them since they were clearly violating the anti-free speech ordinance. He told her that would be impossible.
Meanwhile, as soon as Goldman and the chief had left the other room, the seven men remaining with Reitman had drawn pistols and hustled him outside, past a uniformed policeman, and into a waiting automobile. “They told me they could tear out my guts but they’d promised the chief of police not to kill me,” he recalled later. They drove him out to the desert where they stripped and beat him, kicked him in the groin, covered him in tar, and branded the letters “IWW” in his back with a burning cigar.
At midnight, her speech undelivered, Goldman was taken from the hotel by police and forceably placed on board a northbound train for Los Angeles.
By early summer, support for the free speech fight in San Diego was beginning to wane. A dispatch from San Diego in the Industrial Worker, an IWW paper, spoke of the impossibility of holding propaganda meetings or securing speaking halls in the city and of disease spreading inside the jails. Other struggles, such as the IWW-led strike of women mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, were also drawing off much needed leadership and resources. Many of the wobblies who had participated in the free speech fights were also bitter over the tactic of nonviolent resistance. “My lesson is passive resistance no more,” vowed Chris Hansen from his hospital bed. “If I ever take part in another free speech fight it will be with machine guns and aerial bombs.” On August 22, six men were arrested in El Cajon and charged with planning to dynamite the new Spreckels theatre. A similar raid was made against an IWW house at 15th and G Streets.
Jack Whyte was one of the last wobblies to be convicted of breaking the anti-free speech ordinance. His address to the court that fall was reprinted in socialist and labor journals throughout the country. He said, in part, “If the people of the state are to blame for this persecution, then the people...are to blame for every injury inflicted upon members of the working class by the vigilantes of this city. The people deny it. You cowards throw the blame upon the people, but I know who is to blame and I name them—it is Spreckels and his partners in business. And this court is the lackey and lickspittle of that class, defending the property of that class against the advancing horde of starving American workers.... The prosecutor lied, but I will accept it as truth and say it again, so that you, Judge Sloane, may not be mistaken as to my attitude: ‘To hell with the courts; I know what justice is!’ ”
“We was sure the militants,” “Codger” Lewis recalls with a note of wistfulness in his voice. “But ya’ know the funny thing is that when all’s said and done and writ down in the history books, it turns out that we was the ones that stood by the Constitution and protected the Bill of Rights. Yer wealthy law ’n’ order types figured free speech was a fine idea just as long as no one else tried to practice it.
“And one other thing,” he added after a pause, “don’t write this out just like it’s all past and done. Freedom’s like corn, it’s something that ain’t always gonna be there unless ya’ keep replanting it.”
Down by Kettner Boulevard, where G Street crosses the railroad tracks, stands a fading yellow warehouse. “Warehouse No. 5 — Sullivan Hardwood Lumber Co.,” read the washed-out green letters facing the street. On the other side, on the back wall facing a second set of railroad tracks, just a stone’s throw from police headquarters, is another sign. Handlettered in fading black paint, it reads, “Join the IWW.” And below that, in red spray paint, someone has added, “Remember 1912 — Solidarity Forever.”